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Monday, November 9, 2009

The Wonderful World of Cheese

There are few things I find more enjoyable than cheese. Be it melted or cold, by itself or incorporated into a dish, I consider cheese to be the utmost in culinary delight. When it comes to which variety or brand of cheese to eat, however, the choices can be complex. Cheese can come from cows, goats, buffalo, or sheep. Some varieties of cheese are more or less energy intensive, and some farms even make organic cheese. While I consider all cheese to be good, having an environmentally sound cheese can make it truly great. I therefore hope to provide a slice of guidance on how to find eco-conscious, delectable cheese. Food Miles The easiest and perhaps most effective way of making eco-conscious decisions about cheese depends on the location of origin. Knowing your approximate distance from different locations can help you determine how far your block of cheese traveled to reach you. While there are some specific regions in the United States—such as Vermont, Wisconsin, and California—that are well known for their cheeses, a local version might be just as delightful. If the above are your only choices for cheese decisions, however, it is very important to know which one of these national cheese havens is closest to you. The closer the origin, the less fuel used in transport. If you cannot find cheese produced in your state at your grocery store, a local farmer’s market might be the place to find it. Many farmers make their own cheese and bring it to sell. This fresh cheese can be some of the most delicious and most environmentally sound. The Organic Option Organic cheese is another way to be environmental about your delicious decisions. Organic cheeses are those that have many specific features, including:
  • all organic animal feed, meaning produced without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified grain
  • no antibiotics are given to the milk producing animals
  • beyond milk, all other ingredients of the cheese must be organically produced
These tight restrictions can yield very delicious cheese from organic farms. Some farms will go beyond organic, offering cheese from grass-fed animals or from animals that live in a free-range environment. These practiced are in place to ensure that the cheese-producing animals are treated well. And so, organic cheese is a good option for great tasting and environmentally friendly cheese. Energy Intense Varieties provides a great deal of information about cheese, including which varieties take more energy to make. Generally, the rule of thumb to follow is the softer the cheese, the less energy use. This rule means very soft cheeses such as ricotta, cottage, and cream cheese the least energy intensive (and consequently the easiest to make at home if you so desire). Those with a bloomy or white rind such as brie or camembert require more energy, and even more for “washed-rind cheeses” which generally have a orange or yellow colored soft rind. Pressed, uncooked cheeses such as cheddar are often considered “semi-hard” and require a more intensive process of coagulation. The pressed, cooked cheeses such as Parmesan are generally known as the hard cheese and require even more energy in the cooking process. The major exception to the softest to hardest rule of thumb is that of processed cheese such as American. Processed cheese is made by taking a previous forms of cheese, often the pressed cooked or uncooked, and melting it down. The manufacturers then add a variety of different ingredients at high temperatures, stretch it out, slice it, and package the cheese. Processed cheese is, probably unsurprisingly, the least eco-conscious variety. So, the next time you peruse the cheese isle or explore the farmer’s market coolers for a delicious luxurious treat, I hope you will consider these tips to keep your enjoyment of cheese environmentally sound. Image Credit:, The Sun Blog, Artisanal Cheese, Vivant Fine Cheese

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